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Olympics concerns after Brazil blackout

Brazil Blackouts
People eat by candlelight at a restaurant at the Copabana beach in Rio de Janeiro during a blackout Tuesday. Bradley Brooks / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Organizers of the 2016 Olympics are pitching host city Rio de Janeiro as a potential "power island" immune from blackouts like the one that left 60 million Brazilians in the dark, though experts questioned Thursday whether a safe energy haven for the games is possible.

Rio has the capacity to produce more energy than it can consume with natural gas-fired plants and nuclear energy facilities nearby. And Brazil's Olympic Committee touted that fact in its bid proposal, saying locally generated energy could supply the city alone instead of being fed into the national grid.

The Olympic venues themselves will also be supported with power from new wind and solar power projects.

But since late Tuesday's blackout, which darkened all of Rio and much of Brazil, the committee has refused to comment on the outage or the power island concept.

Instead, committee officials e-mailed to reporters the section of the bid proposal on energy that does not provide detailed information on what's needed to isolate Rio with its own electricity. Brazil's Energy Ministry also declined to comment Thursday.

Experts said the idea of removing Rio from the national grid so it alone would use its energy is feasible, but questioned why bid officials provided no details of their planned infrastructure investments in the proposal.

The Olympic report calls Brazil's electrical system "highly successful and structured." But red flags were raised by storms that apparently short-circuited transformers on a key transmission line from the Itaipu dam that funnels 20 percent of Brazil's electricity, said Johanna Mendelson Forman, an energy expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Producing energy and getting it on the grid are two different problems," she said. "It's the same in the United States. There are a lot of places that produce a lot of energy, but the challenge is getting it onto a grid that is antiquated."

Power island
The Olympic plan states that "even in the absence of the interconnected system it would be possible to operate Rio's power grid as a power island." That means it wouldn't be dependent on Itaipu-generated electricity that got knocked out during the blackout.

Another energy analyst said Rio is well-prepared to divert its energy to the city if Brazil is hit by a blackout of epic proportions during the Olympics. At most, he said, there might be a brief interruption of electricity.

"All gas plants will be running during the games, and if there is a problem like the one that happened in Itaipu, the power will be re-established to consumers within minutes," said Adriano Pires, who heads the Rio-based Brazilian Center for Infrastructure Studies.

Rio's Olympic plan forecasts that the total demand in the city, including Olympic venues, will be 4,900 megawatts — well below its current generating capacity, 5,800 megawatts.

Norman Anderson, a private Latin American energy and infrastructure expert in Washington, D.C., said Rio also gets energy from two nearby nuclear plants. Angra 1 and Angra 2 have a combined installed capacity of 2,000 megawatts, while another planned nuclear plant will produce 1,400 megawatts by 2014.

But this week's blackouts forced those two plants to shut down for 24 hours as a safety precaution after the massive energy failure hit 18 of Brazil's states.

Overcoming obstacles
Both Mendelson Forman and Anderson praised Brazil's know-how in the electrical sector and expressed optimism that Brazil has the capability to overcome energy obstacles.

"It has ability and has money, as Brazil was not hurt as bad in this global recession," Mendelson Forman said. "Brazil has an excellent capacity to build infrastructure."

While Brazil's energy minister blamed the blackout on the storms and possible lightning strikes, the National Institute for Space Research, or INPE, said Thursday that the only strikes registered by satellite were at least six miles from the affected transmission lines.

INPE also said the discharges had low intensity not capable of hurting the lines, and federal prosecutors announced they were launching an investigation to determine how the blackouts happened and whether human error could have contributed.

"It was unwise for the minister to make those statements without consulting the experts at INPE," said Osmar Pinto, a weather expert at the institute.